There are plenty of rules for writing well, such as not finishing with a preposition, starting with a conjunction, using passive voice, or using adverbs. Most of what we’re talking about here are actually guidelines. Some rules are hard and fast; if you break those, you’re just doing it wrong. Things like poor spelling, improper tense usage, and run-ons are problematic. But set those aside for now as we focus more on the softer rules, or the strong suggestions.
Keep in mind that the purpose and style make a big difference. If you’re writing a formal report, keep to the rules and ignore the rest of this post. But if you’re writing something more casual, perhaps a blog post or a work of fiction, these are some rules that are okay to break.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
This rule is based on the definition of preposition, which can be taken a little too far. Check out our post on why ending with a preposition is okay. For a shorter explanation: forcing a preposition earlier in a sentence can be awkward, and communicating effectively is more important than strictly adhering to rules. In casual speech, it’s common enough to use a preposition at the end of a sentence, so if your writing emulates casual speech, then don’t worry about that rule.
Don’t Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
Again, the problem here is the definition of conjunction. As we would use them here, coordinating conjunctions allow us to bring two or more clauses together, which means they should come between the clauses. If a conjunction comes at the beginning of a sentence, then what’s it connecting the sentence to?
The answer is, of course, the sentence before it. Conjunctions can actually be helpful ways to transition between sentences; they show the continuation of a though. Without conjunctions, that connection is weaker.
An alternative is to combine the sentence in question with the one before it, but that requires forethought, and longer sentences aren’t everyone’s style. If you’re emulating train-of-thought it’s okay to start a sentence with a preposition (but not the first sentence of a post, chapter, passage, etc.).
Passive Voice is Weak; Use Active Voice Instead
Indeed, the active voice is stronger than the passive voice. It’s better to say “Sue annoyed Amy” than “Amy was annoyed by Sue”. The former gives a sense of action and progress, while the latter feels static.
However, passive voice exists for a reason. Sometimes the action or its result is more important than its cause. If you can’t sit at a certain table at a restaurant, it’s because this table is reserved. Saying someone else has reserved this table adds no significant information. Anyway, you don’t care about someone else, you just care able that table.
Remember that passive voice is most useful when the agent (the active noun) is obvious, unimportant, or unknown. If each of these cases, you can simple remove the agent from the sentence. In contrast, a passive sentence including by [active noun] is a weaker sentence.
So here’s the rule of thumb: If your sentence includes “by [active noun]”, then it’s a weak sentence. Take that phrase out for a stronger passive sentence. If you can’t remove “by [active noun]” without losing significant information, then make the sentence active instead.
Sentence Fragments are Forbidden
Here’s another example of something that we do occasionally in casual speech, so if you want your casual writing to sound like casual speech, use can use fragments.
Be careful with these; don’t overdo them. I recommend using them sparingly, and only for emphasis. For example, if you want to stress a point, you can express it in a sentence, then repeat the most important part of the sentence, the part you want people to remember. If that happens to not have a subject and/or a verb, then that’s okay.
There are other ways to emphasize ideas with fragments. For example in the above paragraph, “the part you want people to remember” is a fragment that reinforces “the most important part of the sentence” in the clause before it.
Adverbs are Shortcuts
It’s better to show how someone does an action than to tell how they do it. For instance, “James made his way up to the front of the classroom, bumping into his fellow students and tripping over book-bags on his way,” is a better sentence than “James clumsily made his way up to the front of the classroom.” But in this case, the ‘better’ sentence is drawing a lot of attention to James’s clumsy nature. If that’s what you want, then that’s good! But if you want your readers’ attention to be on something else, than use the adverb ‘clumsily’ instead. You as a writer should only give attention to the things you want your readers to pay attention.
Also, keep in mind that there are times when you need to be concise. Adverbs help with that.
Don’t Use ‘They’ for Singular Nouns
If the gender of a noun is unspecified, we can say ‘they’ in place of ‘she’ or ‘he’ (as well as ‘them’ in place of ‘her’ or ‘him’, and ‘their’ in place of ‘her’ and ‘his’). Some people say that you can’t use ‘they’/’them’/’their’ if the noun is not plural. Use ‘she’/he’ or ‘her/him’ or ‘her/his’ instead. But to frank, that becomes quite laborious if you need to use a pronoun for this person more than a couple times. These days, it’s perfectly acceptable to use ‘they’/’them’/’their’ if the gender of the noun is unclear.